Cellphones, pregnancy accommodations face debatesFebruary 11, 2020
By TOM DAVIES
The Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana lawmakers returned Monday to the Statehouse after deadlines last week on advancing bills for action during the last half of this year’s legislative session.
The Legislature has already approved a plan for spending $291 million in unanticipated state tax revenue on several building projects as the big Republican majorities in the House and Senate unanimously rejected Democratic proposals for directing at least some of that money toward higher school funding.
Bills to combat distracted driving with a ban on the use of handheld cellphones and toughen penalties for stores caught selling smoking or vaping products to anyone younger than 21 appear on their way to becoming law. But a proposal supported by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb that would require more Indiana businesses to provide workplace accommodations for pregnant women is in trouble after facing resistance from some business groups.
The 10-week legislative session is scheduled to end by mid-March.
Here is a look at some of the top issues:
Holcomb has signed off on directing $291 million toward spending cash on six college campus construction projects, rather than borrowing money. Republicans held firm on that plan despite several thousand educators attending a November rally at the Statehouse during which stagnant teacher pay was a major concern.
Holcomb maintains that nearly all Indiana public school teachers are seeing raises this school year under the 2.5% per-year increase in school funding included in the two-year state budget adopted last April. He says this year’s spending bill will save the state more than $135 million in borrowing costs.
The governor has argued in favor of the Legislature waiting until 2021 when a new budget is written so lawmakers can consider recommendations expected later this year from a teacher pay commission he appointed. Democrats say they believe that is shortsighted and that the state could boost teacher pay immediately as it has some $2 billion in cash reserves.
The Indiana House voted unanimously last month to end the mandatory use of student test results in teacher evaluations. That would be a major about face on the mandate dating from a 2011 Republican-driven education overhaul that school districts incorporate those student exam results in their teacher evaluations, which are used in determining merit pay raises.
Teachers unions have long opposed that mandate, saying the “high-stakes tests” don’t accurately demonstrate teacher performance.
That bill is awaiting action in the state Senate, where majority Republicans “are looking favorably towards it,” said Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray of Martinsville.
A proposal that would ban motorists from using handheld cellphones cleared the House last month and is pending with the Senate.
That bill, which the governor supports, only permits cellphone use with hands-free or voice-operated technology, except in emergencies. It would broaden the state’s current ban on texting while driving that officials say is unenforceable and doesn’t include actions such as emailing, using apps such as Snapchat or viewing videos.
Twenty-one other states already have similar bans. Supporters compare it to the adoption of seat belt laws and say that while a cellphone ban might be difficult to enforce it does send a message about what is acceptable.
Advocates of requiring workplace accommodations for pregnant women will need to find support in the House in the coming weeks after Republican senators rejected the Holcomb-supported bill.
The proposal would require Indiana businesses with more than 15 employees to allow pregnant women to take longer breaks, transfer to less physical work and take unpaid time off after childbirth. Federal laws already require larger companies to provide pregnancy accommodations, and 27 other states have laws similar to Holcomb’s proposal.
Top Holcomb administration health officials joined several doctors and other health advocates in backing the plan as a way of improving Indiana’s infant mortality rate, which was the country’s seventh-worst, with about 600 infant deaths in 2017. The bill has faced opposition from Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the Indiana Manufacturers Association as possibly exposing more businesses to lawsuits.
The House and Senate have approved separate bills on toughening state penalties for stores caught selling smoking or vaping products to anyone younger than 21. The action comes in proposals that include raising Indiana’s minimum age for smoking and vaping from 18 to 21 to conform with a new federal law.
Senators approved tripling possible retailer fines to between $600 and $3,000 based on number of violations in a six-month period. The House endorsed different retailer penalties, and the chambers need to reach agreement on a single version before the legislative session ends. Holcomb supports the tougher penalties, which officials say haven’t been increased since 2008.
Consumer and environmental groups are fighting proposal aimed at making it more difficult for Indiana electric companies to close more coal-fired power plants. The House narrowly approved the bill last week, sending it on to the Senate for consideration.
It would impose additional state reviews on utility companies for the coming year before they could move ahead with shutting down those plants. Supporters maintain they want to slow down any more plant closing decisions before a state energy task force completes a report for legislators that's due in late 2020, while opponents argue it props up the coal industry and could stifle growth in renewable energy such as wind and solar power.
The proposal comes as at least four large Indiana electric utilities intend to close several coal-burning plants in the coming years.
Republicans refused again to consider changing how Indiana politicians dice up the state for congressional and legislative districts. This comes as that redistricting process will take place in 2021 using data from the once-a-decade U.S. census taking place this year.
Those advocating for a revamp of Indiana’s redistricting procedures have been frustrated for several years by attempts to find support among Republicans, who have held at least two-thirds of the House and Senate seats since redrawing those maps following the 2010 census.
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